A report from Workers' Dignity alleges alarming conditions for Nashville hotel workers

From Nashville Scene:

by Erica Ciccarone

In the mood for some Southern hospitality? Workers' Dignity — a nonprofit group of low-wage workers and allies organizing for economic justice — released a report Monday that details the conditions of hotel workers in Nashville, and it's startling. On Monday evening during rush hour, they held a press conference outside the construction site for the Westin hotel in SoBro, for which the Metro Development and Housing Agency approved tax-incentive financing of $15 million in 2014.

Rosie, who asked that we use only her first name, says she injured her shoulder while making a bed at a major hotel. "When I hurt my arm," Rosie tells the Scene through a translator, "I reported to my immediate supervisor. She said, 'Finish out your day.' I had 24 rooms I was cleaning. The second day, I came back. I had 30 rooms to clean that day. They made me work another week or two while I was in pain before I insisted that I go to the clinic."

Rosie's supervisors arranged to send her to a clinic, where she was told she was fine. The pain, she says, got so bad that she asked to take the weekend off. When she returned on Monday, she was fired. Rosie does not have health insurance but made an appointment at Vanderbilt anyway. "They did an X-ray and could see I tore something and had this blood clot in my shoulder. They said, 'You have to have surgery. There's no other way to fix it.' " Her injury happened in November, and her surgery is scheduled for this week.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University worked in collaboration with Meharry-Vanderbilt Community Engaged Research Core to survey 52 cleaning workers across Davidson County; 80 percent of these were housekeepers in hospitality. They found that despite an unprecedented rise in the tourism industry, the wages of housekeepers have not kept up. Their average wage is $8.36/hour and dropping below the national median. Ninety-four percent of respondents are living below the federal poverty line.

Tristan Call is an author of the report and Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt who volunteers with Workers' Dignity. "They're treating workers like they are a disposable good," he says, "as machinery that can be brought in and taken out, rather than as people who can be invested in ... who could have a long working life and then be able to retire."

The findings are particularly distressing during the current hospitality boom: The report says that while hospitality revenue went up 3.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, the number of hospitality jobs grew by 1.6 percent, but total payroll increased by only 0.1 percent during the same period. If one averages in alleged wage theft, hospitality workers actually took a pay cut at a time of unprecedented prosperity and growth.

Diana Lopez, a former hotel housekeeper and steering committee member of Workers' Dignity, expresses outrage. "We need to keep the government accountable for this. If they are able to give millions of dollars to the hotel industry through [tax-incentive financing], why can't our salaries go up, too? Why can't we have dignified jobs in these places? Why can't the housekeepers who are cleaning these rooms make a better living?"

The study doesn't name the 13 hotels where respondents worked. Call says this is because Workers' Dignity does not want to reduce the issue to isolated incidents — it's a systemic problem, he says. Although the study was in part directed and authored by Call, master's of education student Patrick Cate and Vanderbilt professor Paul Speer of the Department of Human and Organizational Development, it was driven and conducted by low-wage workers themselves as part of the organization's ongoing "Just Hospitality" campaign.

Workers' Dignity has been lobbying for the rights of hotel workers since 2013, campaigning successfully at seven hotels in Nashville and recovering more than $330,000 in unpaid wages from hotels and third-party employers. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division found that 34 hotels and motels were in direct violation of labor laws. Nine of these were in Nashville.

Eighteen percent of respondents to the Vanderbilt survey said they were making below minimum wage. According to Workers' Dignity, this is due to outright theft. In the case of the lawsuit brought against the owner of Comfort Inn Downtown and Best Western Music Row in 2011, employees claimed they were forced to work off the clock and without lunch breaks. In other cases, as alleged at Homewood Suites in 2015, employers might shave off hours and manipulate time sheets. The Comfort Inn and Best Western lawsuit resulted in total wage increase of $53,000 per year, with workers recovering $21,000 in unpaid wages. Workers' efforts have also forced two other hotels, the DoubleTree and Sheraton Downtown, to increase wages in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The report also found that 24 percent of respondents have been injured on the job; of those reporting injury, 87 percent claim they were denied emergency medical care. Because 51 percent say they receive neither paid nor unpaid sick days, employees are forced to work while injured or ill, or risk losing their jobs.

Greg Adkins, president and CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association, expresses skepticism about the findings. "Our hoteliers — I can speak for most of them — really strive for 100 percent compliance of law," he says. "As an association, we use best-practices training. We have a legal symposium every year, and a lot of the sessions are in human resources."

Adkins says workers alleging abuse have options: They can file a claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Association in the Tennessee Department of Justice or the federal Department of Labor. But in practice, workers may fear retaliation by employers, lack knowledge about their rights, or find barriers to filing. Even if they do file claims, the federal Department of Labor may be stretched too thin to address their cases promptly. In 2011, they reportedly had just over 1,000 inspectors to address claims nationwide.  WHD enforcement statistics reveal that in 2015, it took an average of 125 days to resolve claims.

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